Habits to Feed the Creative Soul Part 2: Reading Foolishly

This blog post is the second of my series on feeding the creative soul (click here for Part 1.)

What is feeding my creative soul?

I’ve been asking myself this a lot recently. After a season of busyness, following a year and a half of general uncertainty, it’s especially hard to get back in touch with what truly nourishes the soul. But there are some habits I’m working on over the next few months to rebuild and recommit to a life of creative inspiration.

Today, I want to talk about the second habit to foster the creative life:

Read books foolishly.

When I say foolishly, I mean to follow my intuition, to read without letting the little voice in my head that tells me I’m stupid, well, tell me I’m stupid.

Little Women. Pride and Prejudice. Anne of Green Gables. These books are some of my perennial favorites, and they’re also what made me want to become a writer from a very young age. In fact, I credit Little Women with inspiring me to the writing life in the first place. The book was one of my first favorites, drawing me into a cozy world of sisterhood, coming of age, and quiet domestic life, of dreaming despite difficult circumstances, of working hard and challenging convention to be the person you were meant to be.

The 1994 film, directed by Gillian Armstrong, was also one of my favorites. The scene toward the end, where Jo finally finishes her manuscript, ties it together, and tucks a sprig of flowers into the knot, had a strong impression on me. The idea that lived experiences were significant, no matter how commonplace or simple, that they could be written about and shared and celebrated, is one of the things I’ve loved about Little Women, in its various incarnations, ever since.

Cynicism: the Enemy to Creativity

As an adult, I’ve carried a bit of shame that these books still speak to me. When I pursued my education in writing at the undergraduate, and later, the graduate level, I felt woefully under-read. In a way, I was. But suddenly, my favorite books seemed so stereotypically feminine, too naive, a little old-fashioned. What importance did Anne Shirley’s romantic idealism have when so many terrible things were going on in the world? Why should I deserve to read about Anne naming cherry trees when another author was telling their own story of violence, dysfunction, and pain? I wish, in many ways, that I was better equipped to enjoy more modern, gritty narratives. That I was as skilled at seeing the value, the goodness, in these very true and important stories, as some of my peers are. Sometimes I am. Sometimes I do. But not often enough to feel competent at it.

It’s only in recent years, as I’ve practiced viewing classic literature through the lens of feminist theory and other critial theories, that I’ve grown more comfortable in enjoying these books. This sounds like a snobbish reason, but it only serves to confirm that my intuition was right: this literature was always valuable; it just took us a while to see it. The truth is, Little Women, for example, has a lot to say about womanhood, personhood, and culture. It was radical for its time, and it is an excellent work of feminist literature. Without a healthy dose of adult cynicism, I wouldn’t have seen these qualities. But then again, without another, healthier dose of childhood foolishness, I wouldn’t have been looking in the first place.

Pragmatic Creativity

It’s also important to know yourself; what helps you as an artist grow? It’s important to be pragmatic about your creative soul. What fosters creativity? Let’s do more of it. What kills creativity? Let’s stop it. What will I not enjoy reading, no matter how many people tell me it’s a good book? Chuck the book away immediately and find something else. If I believe that, as a writer, my work might be for some people but not for everyone, the opposite is also true, and there should not be shame in that.

I feel that I must clarify: I don’t only read feminist classics, or children’s books, or happy fluffy fun things. My writing is rarely this way, either. But I have to follow my inner knowing on what helps me work best. I don’t really understand how a Jane Austen input to my brain produces a Northern Appalachian Gothic output, but that’s what works. And I have to do what works.

 Pragmatism aside: man, there’s just nothing like reading Anne on a summer day. It reminds me of the girl I once was, the girl who decided to become a writer even though she knew very little about what it meant. The nostalgia factor is there, and it is comforting. We tend, in our adult know-it-all-ness, to discount comfort, and enjoyment, and silliness. But nostalgia is powerful for a reason: it connects us to our truest, most foolish selves, the parts of ourselves that hope and find significance in the dumbest stuff. I can’t deny the power of these favorite books, and so I’ll continue to insist on loving them, and letting them feed my creative soul.

Teacher Moment:

What feeds your creativity? What books first captured your interest, and inspired you to greatness? What books do you hate, and why? What can these likes or dislikes teach us about our creative style?

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